John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
The failure of San Francisco's "TacoCopter" is just one example of how we are failing at creating a functional, robotic delivery boy.
It's 2012. There are robots that kill suspected terrorists, robots that perform delicate surgical procedures. Is it too much, then, to ask for a robot capable of delivering a box of steaming barbacoa tacos directly into the hands of a city dweller?
Apparently, yes. All the engineers in the world have not succeeded in conjuring up a single food-delivering bot that doesn't induce a fit of the giggles. The recent failure of San Francisco's TacoCopter drives home that point.
Exactly what it sounds like, the TacoCopter originated in 2011 as the brainchild of MIT and Stanford students, we like to imagine late at night while under the influence of interesting substances. The delivery system would be a quadrotor, a small helicopter-like vehicle that maintains its hovering power with four rotors. These miniscule UAVs are kind of the "it" thing among engineers and model-aircraft enthusiasts; protesters in Warsaw used one last year to collect intel on police movements, while a man flying one near Dallas recently spotted an environmental crime being perpetrated by a hog-slaughtering plant. Quadrotors are agile and efficient in their aerial dances, as evident in this drill conducted by students at Penn State:
These mechanical hummingbirds can even play the James Bond theme on guitars, maracas and drums. But can they deliver a hot mouthful of goodness, as the TacoCopter was supposed to do during its beta run in San Francisco? (A "LobsterCopter" was supposed to deliver the titular crustaceans, the "Taco Of the East!", somewhere along the East Coast.)
Speaking to the Huffington Post, one of the fathers of the TacoCopter explained that no, they cannot, because of "minor problems, like navigating the treacherous terrain of an urban environment, keeping the food warm, finding a city map precise enough to avoid crashes 100 percent of the time, avoiding birds, balconies and telephone wires, delivering food to people indoors, delivering food to the right person, dealing with greedy humans who would just steal the TacoCopter as soon as it got to them, etc."
It's a blast trying to devise fixes for these "minor problems." To prevent ne'er-do-wells from ganking a TacoCopter, could the bots drop their tacos directly into customers' gullets from a height of 100 feet, like precision-guided food bombs? Could they employ bird-repelling lasers so your order doesn't arrive with a side of hungry, shrieking seagulls? Would an encryption system be necessary to prevent piggish geeks from hacking the TacoCopter and steering it into their apartment window, like Iran allegedly did with one of America's drones?
Alas, but U.S. government regulations make such daydreaming pointless. The Federal Aviation Administration forbids people from using UAVs for commercial purposes, so unless the laws change or the tacos become free, the TacoCopter fleet is permanently grounded. It's unknown if that also means that the Organization for Robotic Taco Innovation, Liberation, Libations, and America will finally end its grueling fight for humanity's right to enjoy tacos carried in the cold, metal hands of robots.
A quick look around at previous attempts to summon a robot delivery dude into being reveal equally unsatisfying results. Take a look:
Come one, is this a Segway that somebody plopped a stereotypical Italian dude's head on? If the so-called "Luigi" system was indeed capable of delivering a pizza before it hardened into an oily discus, and if marauding dogs didn't tear it to pieces en route, the customer would probably die of laughter while attempting to stick his credit card into the delivery guy's belly. Also, how would Luigi handle a trip up an apartment building's stairs? Credit should be given nonetheless to the Discovery Channel's Prototype This! team, who at least tried cracking this hard-to-master technology, also in San Francisco.
It's a Coleman cooler on wheels, loaded with bland Coors Light, that follows a painted stripe about as fast as an arthritic sloth. Sorry guys – this is the world's least-cool food-delivering robot. On the other hand, if its optics system somehow led it to the double-yellow stripe on a major highway, it'd be fun watching it get run over repeatedly.
Princeton engineers have created the world's most terrifying autonomous food-fetcher: A rolling machine that attempts to deliver fruitcakes to unsuspecting humans. Run!!!